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The global shift against the death penalty

Last week's UN vote for a moratorium on the death penalty is a welcome step.

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Next year the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. The intense discussions preceding the adoption of the 1948 declaration exposed the divide between nations that favored the death penalty and those that opposed it.

In the minority then, opponents failed to add the death penalty to the violations of human rights listed in the final text of the declaration. Since 1948, however, the ranks of the opposition have grown – and so have their efforts to end the ultimate punishment.

Last Tuesday marked a major milestone in this effort, when the United Nations General Assembly approved a nonbinding global moratorium on the death penalty. This resolution failed repeatedly in past years, so it was heartening to see 104 nations affirm its value.

The debate on the death penalty has raged since ancient Greece. Believing in the proportionality between crime and punishment, Plato favored the death penalty for individuals who committed crimes against their parents and in all cases of intentional murder. Centuries later, philosophers Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel also asserted the merits of the death penalty. On the opposing side, 18th-century Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria believed the death penalty was neither useful nor necessary: The certainty, rather than the cruelty, of the punishment was what counted most.

Today, those who hold fast to the death penalty – the retentionists – regard it from a moral standpoint as a "just" punishment. They also see it as a useful deterrent to protect the "common good" – society's overall security.

Those against – the abolitionists – argue that the death penalty does not help to deter crime, contending that there is no objective evidence to support the claim that the death penalty reduces crime. Moreover, they say, it violates the mother of all human rights: the right to life. Last but not least, it might lead, in some cases, to executions of individuals who are wrongfully convicted.

These are the very reasons why Italy belongs to the camp of the abolitionists.


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